The mask is the pivotal part of Purulia Chhau

A craftsman at work in Charida, in Purulia, the hub of Chhau maskmaking   | Photo Credit: Banglanatak dot com

This quiet, unassuming village in Purulia can give you the shivers. Wherever you go, there are faces staring at you from the walls of shops and houses — some angry, some blissful, some growling menacingly, their sharp teeth showing. The smooth walls of the simple mud houses contrast sharply with the bright colours and dazzling coronets of these heads, adding to the sense of disorientation.

This is Charida, the hub of Chhau mask-making, located in the Baghmundi block of Purulia district. It has been earmarked by the West Bengal government’s Department of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises & Textiles, in collaboration with UNESCO. Nearly every residence along the main road doubles up as a shop, some with names like Mukhosh Ghar (House of Masks). Charida also has a Chhau museum, which documents the specifics of the art form.

Babu or bir?

The mask is the defining feature of Purulia Chhau, differentiating it from its two other branches. Though Seraikella Chhau does use masks, they are simpler, with none of the pomp of these. When an artist dons the mask, he or she gets into character immediately, transforming into mellow Kartik, fierce Ravana, or Durga’s ferocious lion. In the film, Wonder Mask (by Banglanatak dot com), the artist Anil Mahato says, “Shiva danced the tandava: wearing his mask brings in that frisson for me.”

The masks are classified as babu masks (chiefly of gods like Shiva, Narayana, Ganesha, Kartik, Krishna); bir or hero masks (used for demons like Ravana, Mahishasura); bhoot or ghost masks; animal masks (of tiger, lion, buffalo, or monkey heroes like Bali and Sugriva from the Ramayana); nari or women masks (for Durga, Parvati, Saraswati and the like); and bird masks (for peacock, swan, Jatayu etc.).

Some of the mask-makers are performers too — like Gambhir Singh Mura (1930-2002), the Padma Shri-winning Chhau performer from Charida who brought recognition to the art for the first time. The mask-maker brings his own understanding of the character into the mask which, in turn, shapes the dance. Since the masks are stylised, there’s not much scope for experimentation, but the craftsman can use his imagination in the way he paints them, especially in the way he draws the eyes. Each dancer’s mask is unique, made according to his or her facial measurements by their trusted craftsmen, who work in close collaboration with the troupes. Since the Purulia Chhau mask got the GI tag in 2018, mask-makers have become more aware of their intellectual property rights. But not all masks are meant for performance: many are created and sold as keepsakes to tourists and visitors.

Mask-making is a family-run enterprise in Charida, with more than 300 individuals from 115 families involved. The ingredients are simple — it’s basically clay and paper — but the process is slow and detailed, taking shape stage by stage.

The chief mask-maker supervises the work, which is executed chiefly by the women in the family. The elaborate and distinctive decoration — made of tinsel, glass beads, zari, plastic flowers, feathers, strips of coloured jute for hair — is almost solely the province of women, yet Charida’s award-winning mask-makers have all been men so far. Another change called for?

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Printable version | Jul 24, 2021 4:58:02 AM |

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